Approaching Koh Tao on the Lomprayah Catamaran you can see lush green forest, coconut palms, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. A beautiful paradise island. Along the Sairee beach front you can see a few cleverly concealed roof lines in amongst the vegetation. It all looks lovely.
It is certainly more developed than when the first travellers came to Koh Tao in the 70’s. Then they stayed in basic bamboo huts, right at the waters edge and ate simple food provided by the few locals who lived there. Primarily, fishermen and small scale farmers. They could only get around the island on horse back, along sandy tracks that wove through the dense jungle.
In the nearly forty years since then tourism has boomed. There are now roads, albeit, not to every part of the island. There are lorries, cars, pick-up trucks, motorbikes, mopeds, the occasional push-bike and even concrete mixer lorries. The scenes at the pier resemble the arm waving and shouting at the stock exchange. People calling out, plugging some service or other. Yelling out names, if your hotel has sent a taxi to collect you. It’s frantic and noisy and bewildering.
You are taken to your taxi. A flat bed pick-up with seats down the sides. You try to clambour in with a semblance of elegance. The slab concrete roads are busy. There are few pedestrians here so not too many pavements. The road sides are sandy strips used for parking mopeds, street stalls and deliveries. There are lots of obstacles to negotiate for all drivers. We see a pick-up truck parked on the roundabout whilst the driver nips out to fetch his breakfast.
The short hair-raising (in more ways than one) ride on the back of the pick-up introduces you with shock to the realities of tropical paradise island life. The main town at Mae Haad is a patch of parellel streets with shop houses, restaurants, stalls, travel agents, bars, massage parlours, pharmacies, tattoo shops, hairdressers, and clinics. There are a profusion of signs everywhere here. (The authorities are currently trying to charge a sign tax to all businesses displaying signs… Fighting a losing battle there I think, although if they could begin to enforce it, it would no doubt provide a fabulous source of income! )
No real town planning has gone on here. The buildings are a jumble of styles, fascias, roof lines and roofing, finishing, windows, guttering (or not) pipes, steps, balconies and colours.
There is evidence of a basic infrastructure, in that there are drains winding along main roads, and electricity cables snaking suspended aloft. There are huge wind turbines on the hillsides, satellite phone aerials in clusters on higher ground. There are solar panels for street lights and Wifi points on every lamppost. My map tells me that there is also a huge reservoir in the centre of the island to collect much needed water. This is a progressive place. There are ‘council’ workers, clad in hats and balaclavas, who strim the rough grass at the road sides, and chop back burgeoning vegetation from solar panels and cables.
On closer inspection the everyday detritus of modern living can be spotted on all these sandy verges; in drains,whose concrete or metal covers have long gone; along the edges of new developments; in the no man’s land spaces which are no one’s responsibility.
However, on passing the island’s general refuse tip we noticed that there is evidence of recycling. Families are living in the surrounding area of the tip and gradually picking throughout the waste to extract tins, plastic and card.
Once at the beach we find it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The coconut palms stand to attention all along the coastline like sentries, their green fronds saluting you as you pass. The mangrove type trees, that grow in the sands of the beach and survive in salty water provide shady spots to sit in when the tide is low. The warm water is shallow and the bays are sandy. Coral reefs, rich with sea life can be seen in the darker waters. Huge rocks that crashed down from the steep hillsides in the past, have landed at the waters’ edge and with squinting eyes it is possible to make out shapes in the bulk of stone; a shark’s fin, a sitting Buddha, turtle, a snake’s tongue.
Despite the increase in visitors over the years, Koh Tao still remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. We realise that we want to help to conserve this tropical paradise, to help prolong the life of this island as a place that tourists will want to continue to come to in the years ahead.
All of the dive schools here are involved in various types of conservation work and there is another organisation called Save Koh Tao which was set up in 2000 and is supported by Thai and foreign nationals , business owners and people living and working here. It aims to conserve natural resources, address local environmental concerns and educate and develop understanding in the community to work towards a sustainable tourism on the island. Their plans cover; land conservation; marine conservation; education and fund raising events. www.marineconservationkohtao.com or www.savekohtao.com
So, we find ourselves contributing in a small way by offering to help with a weekly beach clean-up together with, and organised by, Josh from Master Divers in Mae Haad. Cleaning the beaches regularly helps prevent unwanted debris from entering the waters of the Gulf of Thailand. A turtle finds a plastic bag is indistinguishable from a jelly fish which is their favourite food. (Glad something finds jelly fish delicious!).
Between the three of us we collected 8.8kgs of rubbish.The most prevalent type of rubbish was cigarette ends. We also picked up a lot of ear buds, drinking straws, plastic cutlery, plastic bottle lids, beer bottle tops, bits of construction debris, glass bottles, plastic bags, nylon string, ring pulls and crisp packets.
We hired a kayak and paddled round the bays in a north easterly direction. It was a wonderful day. Gorgeous clear water, and pretty coves and bays along the way. Utter peace and quiet most of the time. Our ‘Hawaii Five O’ style landing on to the beach in one bay, surfing in on the top of huge waves, was rather spectacularly cool. Our exit from the bay was less so! Tricky to paddle out through huge waves and not tip over. Luckily we were able to recover from our embarrassment by searching for Erin’s mask for about half an hour!
From there we had great snorkeling. Erin saw a black tipped reef shark and some chevron barracudas. I saw rainbow fish, a puffer fish, malabar grouper, beaked coral fish, nemos, angel fish, triton triggerfish, butterfly fish, cleaner fish, moray eels and star fish. We also swam over beautiful coral gardens with so many different kinds of hard and soft coral. It was truly mesmerising and beautiful.
We have got to help to try and keep it that way.